Gadfly filmmaker Yolande Zauberman (“Would You Have Sex With an Arab?”) uses her guerilla-style low-wattage camera to expose rampant sexual abuse among a community of ultra-Orthodox Jews in “M,” a typically confrontational documentary that’s long on outrage and short on aesthetics. Shot entirely at night and largely composed of murky close-ups of Menahem Lang, an actor who was repeatedly raped as a child while growing up in the Israeli city of Bneï Brek, the film is an excoriating attack on the way child abuse has been normalized and covered up within the isolationist Haredi sects of Judaism. The lack of visual interest will likely hamper all but a tiny release, notwithstanding Locarno’s Special Jury prize; Jewish film festivals are its natural outlet.
As a child, Lang (“Promised Land,” “Kedma”) was the pride of the Neturei Karta community thanks to his beautiful voice, used in synagogue to sing praises to the Lord. Yet several of the men guiding him were also his abusers, starting when he was a 4-year-old. Understandably awash in overpowering bitterness, Lang continues to feel imprisoned by the trauma: “Neither my soul nor my body belonged to me or to God.” Ten years ago he confronted one of his rapists, who admitted to his crimes on video, but since then, Lang hasn’t been back to that enclave, and he hasn’t spoken with his parents for 15 years.
Whether at Zauberman’s prompting or because he felt it was time, he returns to his old neighborhood (the director’s camera close behind), where he tries to draw out the man he videoed a decade ago by sabotaging his electricity. “I just want to finish this with dignity” Lang calls out rather disingenuously, to no avail. More convincing (and certainly more powerful for Zauberman’s case) are the conversations he has with other men who were also raped as children. Their revelations, told in a disturbingly matter-of-fact manner that says a great deal about how common abuse is within the community, are devastating indictments of the warped relationship to sex and power among the ultra-religious.
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At times it’s like Lang is organizing impromptu group therapy sessions with men he’s just met, all of whom have had similar experiences. Later it’s revealed his younger brother was also raped, although it’s unclear when Lang first discovered this. At least a reunion with his parents appears to elicit more sympathy than expected, even if it’s likely his father will always think of him as “impure” and partly blame his son for being the target of sexual predators.
While Zauberman’s goal is worthy, her methods aren’t without serious flaws. A scene in a car with Lang and Talleen Abu Hana, Miss Trans Israel 2016, has something strangely lurid about it, as the camera goes for close-ups objectifying Abu Hana’s body. When Lang admits that he prefers trans women, are we meant to assume this is the result of his abuse? Later on, when a 19-year-old tells him his sexual fantasies are all about men, and Lang “comforts” him by saying it’s just because he has not had sex with a woman yet, what sort of takeaway is the viewer meant to have?
Although Zauberman is credited as the doc’s DP, she must have had a male assistant, as otherwise she couldn’t have shot scenes in the all-male sections of the synagogue and reception hall. At the very end, she paraphrases Kafka, saying “this film is my knife,” meaning she’s using it as a way of excising a cancer on the body of the people she loves, yet surely she knows that sexual abuse within the Haredi community is no secret. Their rabbis, unfortunately, have been extremely successful at containing periodic outcries, and will likely be equally adept at dulling the blade of this documentary. Calling the film “M” is of course a provocative reference to Fritz Lang’s canonical thriller about a child murderer, though in this case Menahem Lang’s abusers killed his soul rather than his body.